Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — follow up to Taliban: religiosity vs pragmatism ]

Sen. Ita Solomon Enang, Chairman of Nigeria’s Senate Committee on Business and Rules, recently responded to a press question about Boko Haram, in an interview published under the curious title, Boko Haram war more religious than social — Engang:

Q: Previously you said Boko Haram attacks were not targeted at Christians but with the consistent attacks on worshippers in churches, have you not changed your mind and how do you think this problem can be dealt with?

A: Unfortunately, I held a position that it is not a religious war in the past. But my position on that is becoming shaky because when people now blatantly take guns to churches and aim at unarmed worshippers, kill them and go away; or they take a bomb to the church and detonate it there, I would say this is like a jihad and I think we should stop behaving like ostriches. I think that the sooner we accept it as a religious war, the better we will be able to handle it.


I keep circling around this central point. Much of interest and concern in today’s world revolves around the manner in which politics and religion are separable, braided together, or inseparable…

image credit: Christian Mercat, under GNU license v 1.2 — see documentation.

What does it mean for a war to be a religious war, or — to avoid the complexities that defining war bring into the picture while substituting the equivalent complexities attendant on the word violence — for violence to be religious violence?

  • Do both sides have to fight a religious war for it to be religious?
  • Can individuals perform acts of religious violence within a war that is not itself religious?

In some ways the issue parallels the one raised by Zen today in a quote from Colin Gray:

It is not sensible to categorize wars according to the believed predominant combat style of one of the belligerents. Guerrilla-style warfare is potentially universal and, on the historical evidence, for excellent reasons has been a favored military method of the weaker combatant eternally. There are no such historical phenomena as guerrilla wars. Rather, there have been countless wars wherein guerrilla tactics have been employed, sometimes by both sides. To define a war according to a tactical style is about as foolish as definition according to weaponry. For example, it is not conducive of understanding to conceive of tank warfare when the subject of interest is warfare with tanks and so forth, typically, if not quite always, in the context of combined arms.

Zen’s response to Gray:

Gray is correct that many wars partake of a blend of tactical fighting styles or that most wars are better defined (or at least should be in terms of causation) by their political character. That said, a specific fighting style sometimes is a definitive descriptive characteristic of a war, particularly if a dominant tactical style explains one side’s consistent comparative advantage (ex. the Macedonian phalanx vs. the Persians) in battle and some of the resultant choices which were forced upon the adversary.


We have a sort of Venn-diagram-in-words possibility: religiopolitical — but it’s really little more than a sop to the fact that religion and politics are at time closely woven. The religiosity of voiolence, and for that matter the violence of religiosity — these are things that wax and wane, shifting sands — they don’t always stay still long enough for us to box them in words, to reify them, to treat them as easily discernible and manipulable mental objects.

That said, to paraphrase Zen, “a specific religious style sometimes is a definitive descriptive characteristic of a war…”

Our understanding may be shifting and nuanced, but the briefs and executive summaries that decision-makers receive, the soundbites they articulate (can one articulate a soundbite?), and the headlines that preach their doctrines to the wide world — these use a given word or they don’t.

Let me turn that around: the briefs and executive summaries that decision-makers receive, the soundbites they articulate, and the headlines that preach their doctrines to the wide world inevitably either use a given word, or they don’t. And yet a realistic understanding of the given situation will be no less inevitably shifting and nuanced…

I feel very timid dipping a toe into Boyd in present company, but a fighter-pilot is a one-person observer, orienter, decider and actor, no? with a loop measured in fractions of seconds, not months? — whereas between intelligence gathering, strategic orientation, policy-making, and diplomatic or military action there are a multitude of communications channels — many of which function as shears that trim nuance down to the nub.

I suspect that questions like “is this a religious war?” and “is this guerrilla war?” carry (at a minimum) book-length subtleties with them, and wind up all too often with answers which are either yes or no, one or zero.


It’s all a bit like asking, “what game is this war we’re playing?”

One senior US official in Iraq was quoted by Anthony Cordesman as saying:

the current situation is like playing three dimensional chess in the dark while someone is shooting at you.

Tom Barnett, in The Pentagon’s New Map:

It is not chess but something closer to soccer. The ball is always moving, and substitutions are constantly changing the composition of both your team and your enemy’s. But worse still, your political leadership’s definition of the “problem” you are trying to solve keeps changing, making your attempts to keep score almost meaningless. You want to know what today’s definition of the problem is? Try reading the op-ed pages; you will have plenty to choose from.

John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt:

Major transformations are thus coming in the nature of adversaries, in the type of threats they may pose and in how conflicts can be waged. Information-age threats are likely to be more diffuse, dispersed, multidimensional nonlinear and ambiguous than industrial-age threats. Metaphorically, then, future conflicts may resemble the Oriental game of Go more than the Western game of chess. The conflict spectrum will be remolded from end to end by these dynamics.

As I noted recently, Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, about the complexity of contemporary life in general:

Not one game is being played, but several, and, if the game metaphor may be stretched further, the problem about real life is that moving one’s knight to QB3 may always be replied to by a lob over the net

When it comes time to think, there are only so many metaphor-boxes to fit your nuances into. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.